July 22, 2016

Whether you’re a workaholic or just trying to pay the bills, balancing your life and your job can be a challenge. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute, has an idea for how to make that balancing act easier: consider renegotiating the 40-hour workweek.

The 40-hour schedule hasn’t always been in place. The last decrease in hours worked was in 1938, and Sawhill is surprised that we haven’t reduced our hours since, given the significant economic growth.

In fact, more families now have two sources of income, meaning that hours worked per family is through the roof.

“As individuals, we have a choice between taking higher productivity in the form of higher wages or we have the opportunity to work less, and we seem to be really on the money side of that equation,” Sawhill says. “We have chosen to increase our incomes but not reduce the amount of time we work.”

But what are we doing with this extra income? Sawhill says that we keep spending it.

“We are a consumer-oriented society, and the market keeps producing more things and businesses keep advertising them and we just seem to be obsessed with having more stuff as opposed to having more time,” she says.

Sawhill believes in workweek flexibility, so that people who enjoy their jobs can still work 40 hours, but those who don’t or have other significant commitments, such as childcare, could negotiate a different schedule.

But, Sawhill cautions, if we wanted to make this system work, there would need to be a higher minimum wage and a significant change in our healthcare system.

Other countries have moved to reduce their workweeks in recent years. Sweden’s experiment with a 30-hour workweek has led to increases in wellbeing and little to no decrease in productivity.

France’s more widespread implementation has proved controversial. The French government introduced a 35-hour workweek in 2000, leading the French to work over 300 hours fewer a year on average than workers in the US. Workers in France tend to be more productive than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, which may help it stay competitive among other countries. But now that the country is accustomed to working 35 hours, the government has recently attempted to raise the workweek back up to help solve France’s high unemployment problem.

“Workers are protesting in a massive way about the ability of companies to go back to a longer workweek,” Sawhill says.

For the US to implement such a change, Sawhill says that we would need to create a shift in our way of thinking.

“What do we really want in our lives? And how do we want to use the resources we have? Do we care about things like how much time parents have to spend with their kids and whether they are able to reduce stress in their lives and maintain their health? There are other things we should care about here,” she says.

Business, Kara Miller, Isabel Sawhill, Work Week

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